A ring of 30 birds perched on a circular wire and viewed from beneath. They have different length tail feathers.

Catalyst has 23 initiatives, run by 12 network members. Together we’re trying to shift power away from the centre and govern it collectively through ‘sociocratic’ circles.

Catalyst is a network made up of lots of partners leading different initiatives. For the last year, we’ve been testing ways for partners to take more ownership and leadership of their initiatives via ‘de-centralised governance’.

De-centralised governance is rather radical and we don’t have all the answers yet on how to do it. This blog is about what we’ve been learning. It’s a summary of Catalyst Producer Ellie Hale’s longer post

It started with a change to sociocratic circles

Sociocracy is a tool to help redistribute and decentralise power.

The Catalyst circles test how we might shift power and accountability away from CAST to a portion of the wider network. 

May 2021

Here’s Catalyst’s structure in May 2021. CAST was at the centre. They ran, led and held the contracts for all initiatives.

April 2022

And here’s April 2022: three self-governing circles. 

Navy blue individual initiatives = currently receiving core Catalyst funding from the collective pot

Grey individual initiatives = funded elsewhere, but aligned thematically

The majority of Catalyst’s delivery and impact is created by the initiatives in these circles. Each circle meets once a month. The purpose of these meetings has been evolving. We check-in, share updates and work together on blockers and ways to increase our work’s value. We’ve just started discussions around collective budget allocation.

In-between meetings we share and discuss through Slack and by writing in an updates doc.

Our 6 other questions 

As well as how to shift power and accountability, we are also asking:

  1. What is the value of doing this work collectively, rather than individually?
  2. How can we help everyone feel they are acting as, rather than with, Catalyst?
  3. What role should the Producers play to enable individuals, initiatives and the collective to thrive?
  4. Should we categorise by initiative, by organisation or by person?
  5. How best to bring in other connected work that’s not Catalyst-funded?
  6. What are we learning from this process that needs to be a) actioned by people within the circles, and b) fed into the Catalyst review?

4 challenges to collective governance

The Producer team sees four main challenges with this experiment. 

1. Culture and power dynamics

We are operating in a multi-stakeholder collective. People need to act as a team but they come from different teams. Each of their teams has different cultures, expectations and ways of working. 

2. Collaboration design

How often to meet and for how long? How best to spend our limited time together? The challenge is to balance time reflecting and time doing the work to reflect on. 

3. Clarity on roles

How much is feasible to co-create? When should Producers lead? We’re trying to find the simplest mental model for everyone.

4. Shifting timelines

The review is taking longer than expected. So we don’t have clear information to underpin collective decision-making.

We expect it to take several iterations of the circle model to overcome these challenges.

7 Initiative Leads viewpoints

In April we ran a retro for all leads. We have a very broad range of people coming together with different opinions and preferences. 

There were lots of areas of agreement and areas of difference. One post-it read ‘we may never get the answers we need but we’re asking the right questions’. This feels important.

Here’s a summary of issues that leads identified.

1. Capacity to engage and collaborate. Organisations lack capacity to do the engagement work that collective governance requires. They can claim £400/month extra to cover it but they need the capacity to do it first.

We also heard that more sharing is more beneficial but there’s never enough time to do it as much as people would like to.

2. Overwhelm. There is an information overload that means people struggle to engage. Reading and digesting others’ updates takes time. Smaller group meetings could help.

At the same time people like connection, freedom and learning about each other's work.

3. Information flows. People need to know about things that are relevant to them. We need the right structures to ensure the right information flows to the right people

4. Collaboration. There are different expectations of what collaboration should look like. Clarity on our collaboration model will help many things, including helping us design meetings better.

5. Accountability. Constructive challenge and accountability is vital, but most feel it’s not being achieved. There’s a need for clearer frameworks and documentation around decision making, and who the buck stops with.

6. Levels and forms of participation. Most viewed collective, participatory decision-making as unimportant. This was a surprise! Many find the governance experiments more of a distraction and frustration. They still love delivering excellent services and impact.

7. Inclusion. We heard that for some the group lacked clarity and inclusion. They wanted more connection and trust-building; a greater sense of safety and belonging. They wanted to see better how they fitted in and what they could bring.

In response we’ve set up an Inclusion working group and a dedicated group session.

Clarity on Catalyst’s model should help all our challenges

As Catalyst’s model and decision-making processes become clearer (see the review) many of these things should become easier. It’s also worth remembering that:

  • Initiative leads’ role is to focus on their initiatives 
  • Producers’ role is to establish a framework that initiative leads can follow

And its worth remembering that we're all on a longer journey of growth. Here's an additional comment shared in the retro's chat:

“I think there’s loads of potential personal benefit for each of us, outside of our roles and organisations, in our attempts to collaborate well. By personal I mean our growth, getting clear on our values and how we want to work together with others - in all our life roles.”

Next steps

We ended by identifying next steps that we could take individually, in sub-circles or that Producers should take forwards. See Ellie’s original post for all of these.

We ‘re also designing a clear, fair and transparent contracting and budgeting process for the next phase of delivery, from August. 

And we’re looking at how to widen circle membership, to include more of the network in governance.

The experiments will continue!

Image credit: "Ring of Birds" by Paul VanDerWerf is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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Ellie Hale
Ellie Hale